Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

May 25, 2012

Sampson playing utility role for Sooners

Anybody who thinks slowpitch softball can’t lead to something big in the fastpitch brand, college style, just ask Erica Sampson.

The fastpitch catcher at Tahlequah emerged as a freshman this season at Oklahoma at the spot she played four seasons in slowpitch for the Lady Tigers.

When left fielder Brittany Williams injured herself at the wall chasing down a foul ball against Oklahoma State on April 26, Sampson entered in her spot, made a nice running grab on a Cowgirl hitter’s liner and in the same inning, hit a three-run home run in the 7-1 victory.

Against Tulsa in last week’s NCAA regional in Norman, she slapped a two-run single as part of a six-run sixth as the Sooners defeated the Golden Hurricane 7-1. She’ll get more chances this weekend as Oklahoma plays host to Arizona in a best-of-three Super Regional starting Friday with a trip to the College World Series and ASA Hall of Fame Stadium — where Sampson played in five state tournaments in high school — at stake.

It hasn’t been easy getting to this point, though.

With standout catcher Jessica Schults injured, expectations were that Sampson might have to catch one of the nation’s top pitchers in Keilani Ricketts.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” said Sampson, who confessed to pushing herself too hard in trying to prove she belonged in that spot, if needed. “The whole fall I got a lot of individual work with both pitchers and eventually, got where I felt comfortable being there.”

But Schults healed, reducing Sampson’s role at first to a pinch-runner, which she did in the season opener, then pinch-hitting and spot-playing in both left and right field. She’s played in 54 of Oklahoma’s 56 games and has started in 20 of them.

“Back in the fall she was easily frustrated. She’d get mad at herself and honestly, that slowed her development down,” Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. “Once she surrendered that frustration, her progress has happened.”

Sampson welcomed the opportunity in left field.

“Because there’s so much action in the outfield in slowpitch, it’s made it an easy adjustment,” she said.

Otherwise, the adjustment has been your typical one to college athletics. Sampson knew what most girls athletes know — the bonding among teammates. She says Tahlequah was nothing like Oklahoma in that regard.

“It really is a different sisterhood than high school,” she said. “There it was two hours a day and weekends off. Here it’s 4-5 hours on game days or practice, I live with six of them, we have classes together, we travel together and there’s study hall. You really are together all the time and you develop a comfort zone with everybody.”

Yet, as Gasso says, they must compete with and against each other.

“The girls are close but there’s rivalries,” she said.  “When Williams got hurt it was like Erica said ‘I’m sorry you got hurt but I’m going to make you beat me out of this when you come back.’”

Sampson has hit just .227 but has had her moments, especially with growing playing time. She had a multi-hit performance (2-for-3) against Iowa State on May 13.

Sampson hit .556 her senior year at Tahlequah with 14 home runs, 11 doubles, 13 triples and 65 RBIs. She knows that power is within her — she’s totaled four long balls in but gets a better sense of pride in the kind of situation she was in against Tulsa.

“We talk about being clutch, about the timely hit,” she said. “I hadn’t seen that pitcher so my focus was just getting it through the infield and getting us going. Home runs are nice but I’ll take coming through like that anytime.”

Gasso said there’s only one thing for Sampson to overcome offensively in a year in which another freshman, Lauren Chamberlain, broke the Big 12’s single-season home run record (25) for the Sooners this past weekend.

“She needs to swing at good pitches,” Gasso said. “She chases a lot and that’s typical for most freshmen.”

With Schults coming back for another season, Sampson just might stay put in the pasture.

“Oh I don’t know. We pride ourselves on having players who can play multiple positions,” Gasso said. “But we’ll see. For an outfielder, she has a great arm and runs really well.”

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